108 balloons symbolize the loss of patrons on one block in Hillcrest
By Ken Williams | Editor
Colorful red and white balloons — 108 to be precise — dotted a stretch of Fifth Avenue just north of University Avenue in Hillcrest on July 26, drawing the attention of motorists, pedestrians and one curious bicyclist dressed only in a thong.
For local restaurants and businesses located in the heart of Hillcrest, the balloons represented the potential number of customers they would be lose every day after the construction of the Uptown Bikeways project along Fourth and Fifth avenues takes away 36 parking spaces in the immediate vicinity.
The Hillcrest Business Association (HBA) and the Uptown Community Parking District led a lunchtime protest over the future loss of parking between Upas and Washington streets on Fourth and Fifth avenues.
Benjamin Nicholls, the HBA’s executive director, said the business community “is very enthusiastic to work out a compromise” with the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), the transit agency responsible for building 12 miles of new and improved bikeways throughout the Uptown communities.
Elizabeth Cox, marketing communications manager at SANDAG, responded via email that the transit agency has already held more than 100 public meetings regarding the Uptown Bikeways project.
Cox said SANDAG has warned about parking loss since the planning stages, and added that the agency has promised to “minimize [that loss] to the greatest extent possible.”
She disputed the HBA figures that 38 spaces would be lost. “For the Hillcrest area, between Upas and Washington along both Fourth and Fifth avenues, our current parking numbers show a net loss of 23 spaces,” Cox said.
The overall goal of the Uptown Bikeways project is to connect the Uptown communities to Downtown and Mission Valley as well as Mission Hills, North Park and Balboa Park.
Currently, SANDAG is working on the final design stage of Phase 1 of the project, which goes from B Street Downtown to Washington Street via Fourth and Fifth avenues.
The project would convert the conventional bike lanes into protected bike lanes to provide greater safety to bikers by creating a barrier from motor vehicles.
“Overall,” Cox added, “the Uptown Bikeways Phase 1 has a net increase in parking of 55 spaces from Downtown San Diego to Washington Street.
“Parking losses are offset where possible by identifying opportunities for additional parking on nearby side streets,” she said.
That spillover into nearby neighborhoods raised safety concerns for Jim Winsor, a resident on the east side of Hillcrest. “What’s going to happen when these drivers look for parking in residential neighborhoods?” he asked. “I’m worried about public safety. I think SANDAG should send this back to the drawing board.”
Hillcrest resident Tim Gahagan, who sits on the Uptown Planners board, said “SANDAG’s bike lane will cost millions [of dollars] and will remove almost 40 parking spaces.” He reminded the media that the city built the existing bike lanes at a little expense and didn’t take away parking.
“Who rides a bike for fine dining anyway?” Gahagan asked.
Linda Sultsman, manager of Bread and Cie on University Avenue, said “the parking crisis in Hillcrest is real” and that “90 percent of parking in this area is utilized.”
“Why on earth would you removed the most prized parking spaces in the entire neighborhood of Hillcrest?” Sultsman asked. “… We are not opposed to bike lanes, but we are opposed to losing parking spaces for our customers.”
Chris Shaw — who owns the MO’S Universe empire in Hillcrest that includes Urban MO’s Bar & Grill, Baja Betty’s, Gossip Grill and the Hillcrest Brewing Company — lamented any loss of parking because of its negative effect on customers.
“Parking is a huge issue for all of us,” Shaw said. “Losing this many parking spaces would be devastating.”
Shaw said parking was such a problem for his customers at Urban MO’s that he bought the lot next door and converted it into off-street parking.
Gerri Trussell, the new executive director of the Uptown Community Parking District, said the UCPD “encourages alternative transportation modes” but not at the expense of losing parking. She encouraged SANDAG to return to the table to reach a compromise with the business community.
After the protest, Trussell told San Diego Uptown News that SANDAG has received approval from the city to take $2 million out of the UCPD parking revenue to pay for additional improvements to the protected bike lanes as requested by the Bankers Hill business community. These enhancements — such as additional street lighting and landscaping — are not part of the SANDAG budget for the project. To read previous reporting on the Bankers Hill enhancement request, visit bit.ly/2nsT41k.
Trusell said UCPD board members voted recently to oppose using parking revenue for projects that take away parking spaces.
Cox said SANDAG extended the same option to the HBA that the Bankers Hill business community requested, but that the agency never heard back from the HBA.
A press release announcing the protest contended that “SANDAG proposes that funds that could be allocated towards a proposed Hillcrest parking structure be diverted to maintain and improve SANDAG’s bike lanes.” The issue, however, was never brought up at the protest.
The SANDAG spokesperson disputed the HBA’s accusation, though.
“SANDAG has not proposed that funds for a proposed Hillcrest parking structure be diverted nor have we requested that funds be used to pay for the bikeway,” Cox said.
Cox emphasized that the Uptown Bikeways project is “funded solely by the local transportation sales tax program, TransNet, administered by SANDAG. Construction is expected to begin in 2018.
“The city of San Diego will be responsible for maintenance of the project once it is open to the public,” she said.
Nicholls, the HBA executive director, concluded the protest by making one last point. “We say that this is a bike lane to nowhere,” he said. “That’s why we have the hashtag #washingtonstreetbikelanetonowhere. … There’s nothing planned right now for Washington Street. No plans to connect to Bachman Drive down to Mission Valley.”
He said UC San Diego officials haven’t given SANDAG permission to use Bachman Drive, which is a private road, and that they haven’t heard from the agency in over two years.
Cox, the SANDAG spokeperson, said the agency last met with UC San Diego staff members in February 2017 and is continuing dialogue about using Bachman Drive to connect bicyclists from Hillcrest to Mission Valley. That project is part of Phase 3, which is still several years away from kicking off.
About that nearly nude bicyclist. He listened to the speakers for a couple of minutes before pedaling away, muttering to himself.
Sara is the editor of San Diego Uptown News.